Palace of Fine Arts

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Originally built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915, the iconic Palace of Fine Arts is an emblem of San Francisco architecture and culture. Popular for locals hosting parties as well as visitors interested in its rich history, the Palace of Fine Arts is a great place to stop on a day spent in the city of San Francisco.


Located in the Marina district, a primarily residential area in the north-central part of the city, the Palace of Fine Arts is the only structure left from the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition (World’s Fair) that was staged in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and meant to be emblematic of the city’s rebirth. Along with nine other palaces dedicated to everything from Liberal Arts to Agriculture, the Palace of Fine Arts was meant as a temporary structure and used to house the fine art pieces on display for the duration of the Exposition.

However, right from the start the Greco-Roman-inspired ruin designed by Bernard Maybeck was a favorite among locals. While the exposition was still taking place, Phoebe Apperson Hearst organized the Palace Preservation League in order to keep the structure as a permanent part of the San Francisco cityscape. Today, it is one of very few remaining artifacts from the Exposition and the only one that still stands in its original location.

Following the success of the league’s petition, the Palace of Fine Arts was used for a variety of purposes including a house for military jeeps and other vehicles during the Second World War. However, by the 1950s this mock ruin had become just that thanks, in part, to its flimsy structure which was never meant to see 1916. As such, a complete demolition of the building as well as reconstruction effort was mounted in 1964 at an incredible monetary cost. Five years later, in 1969, the establishment of San Francisco’s famed Expolratorium science museum in the former exhibit hall put the Palace to good use through 2013 when the museum relocated to a larger, purpose-built site at the Embarcadero.

In addition to the stunning architecture and beautiful surrounding gardens and contemplative pond/lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts was also fitted with a brand-new 962-seat theatre which is often used for various performances and events. In addition, the lagoon is a popular spot for couples on wedding/engagement shoots as well as a popular rental hall for receptions and other local events.

Indeed, the Palace of Fine Arts is seen as such a staple of San Francisco itself that a replica was made for the northern California section of Disneyland’s California Adventure theme park. The famous dome of the palace as also often appears in popular culture as a backdrop to the city. This includes appearances in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 movie Vertigo, in the television series Charmed, Monk, and Nash Bridges, as well as several of the SimCity video games.

Main Attraction

With the exit of the Exploratorium from the Exhibit Hall of the Palace of Fine Arts in January 2013, the appeal of a visit to this emblem of San Francisco is quiet contemplation and cultural stimulation. Still an active part of the dramatic and musical scene of this city, the theatre in the Palace of Fine Arts is booked nearly every weekend.

In addition, the beauty of the lagoon, which is home to swans, geese, ducks, turtles, and frogs, is also quite powerful. Children can feed the birds and fish and adults can enjoy the unique group of people who gather in this special city spot. Often, local musicians will play in the crevices of the building adding to the unique atmosphere. There is no fee to walk on the grounds of the Palace of Fine Arts and it is open each day through dusk.

Why It’s a Must-See

A unique and emblematic element of the San Francisco cultural scene, travelling to the Palace of Fine arts for a performance or just a walk on the grounds is a truly worthwhile experience.